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CD Reviews: Vienna Teng
Vienna Teng: Warm Strangers
September 2004
By: Corinne Ferraro
album cover of Vienna Teng's Warm Strangers

Vienna Teng is a classically-oriented pianist struggling to find her songwriting voice in a pop arena.

She is also a songwriter who had to answer the question, "What next?" after releasing a debut of cathartic, autobiographical songs on first album, Waking Hour. It is a common quandary for songwriters whose repertoire is founded on songs written in the pain of youth-- as one matures and life becomes less confusing, are the sources of lyrics less plentiful?

Teng tackles both these issues admirably on Warm Strangers, her sophomore release. Teng preserves her most distinctive quality as a musician--- her gentle, delicate piano playing. Her soothing piano work is complemented by an equally delicate voice, evocative of Suzanne Vega. Working with producer David Henry, Warm Strangers layers a rich and varied assortment of instruments and vocals harmonies over Teng's distinctively sparse sound.

She also completely inverts her approach to lyric writing on this second album. Rather than digging into her own soul for lyrics, Teng takes her inspiration from the world outside herself, whether it be fictional characters or the people surrounding her. Free of angst, Teng has undertaken a formidable task: to write a set of happy songs, which are also songs of substance. Many artists have successful written about sadness in attention-gripping detail, but to have the same effect with happy songs is a rare feat.

The result is an album that can be alternately be calming or uplifting. The songs on Warm Strangers may not leave the listener with as much to brood over while pouring through the lyric sheets. But they do soothe and inspire the listener without ever lowering their level of literacy--- and that's an accomplishment.

Feather Moon, the first track on the album, is a standout. It feels more like a poem set to music than a conventional pop song--- rather than telling a story or simply describing emotions, the lyrics evoke a set of images: Feather moon / Scarlet sky / Living clouds / Blinded my eye / Waters black / Wood in snow / Dead of night / How bright you glow. The accompanying instrumental parts are minimalist but dramatic, bringing Teng's classical sensibility to fruition in the album with great success.

Feather Moon is one of several instances on the album in which Teng recalls a technique specifically employed by Tori Amos. Feather Moon is a slow, dramatic song, which intentionally bucks conventional pop music structure. Using such a song to "bookend" an album (as its first track) recalls Amos's Yes, Anastasia or Pandora's Aquarium, songs which share those qualities and served as album closers.

Teng also harkens Amos's Me And A Gun in Passage--- both are a cappella songs about traumatic events, placed second-to-last on their respective albums. However, Teng puts her own stamp on it by singing of a tragedy that she could not personally have experienced - that is, from the point of view of a person who had died in a car accident many months or years ago. Thus, she makes a marked departure from Amos's song, which is pure, unedited autobiography.

Harbor, another highlight of the album, is a richly-produced track whose layered vocals and soaring strings successfully convey the song's message of hopefulness: The light in me will guide you home / All I want is to be your harbor.

Another experiment in rich production is Hope On Fire, a song that finds Teng's classical style infused with a more rock-oriented sound. Teng's delicate voice will never be a truly at home within a rock song, but she carries it off by staying true to the essence of her style. She maintains classical elements such as piano, strings, and vocal harmony as prominent elements of her sound, so that Hope On Fire is still undeniably a Vienna Teng song.

The rest of the album provide a healthy sampling of Teng in her most comfortable vein: even-keeled, soothing piano ballads, such as Shine and Anna Rose. Through these songs she tells the stories of many characters, from those drawn from classical literature (My Medea) to a modern young woman whose day finds her slugging down coffee and fending off clinic protesters (Shasta (Carrie's Song)). This album will be a welcome addition to any Teng fan who appreciates her distinctive sound, as she dabbles in new approaches both to musical production and to storytelling.